Music is “Instrumental” to Broadway Musicals

Music is “Instrumental” to Broadway Musicals

Today, I was listening to some original cast recordings on a car trip, and I realized that three of the shows I had chosen to listen to included special instrumental pieces that were crafted special for their respective pieces. I am not talking about overtures or incidental music, but actual musical numbers unto themselves that, without lyrics, still managed to tell a great deal about the story. Here is a celebration of some of the best of these musical moments that are “instrumental” to Broadway musicals.

“The Carousel Waltz”
By Richard Rodgers

The musical Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein was groundbreaking in so many ways. Their decision to forgo an overture and instead open the show with a pantomime sequence was revolutionary stage storytelling for the time. The music that accompanied this sequence has become revolutionary, Rodgers’s “Carousel Waltz”, a lush, twirling tune that pulses and builds, first like a rusty squeezebox and then evolving into a soaring, dizzying spin on a merry-go-round. 

By Charlie Small

“The Tornado” sequence from The Wiz is an ominous, electrically charged instrumental, punctuated with “oohs” and “ahs”, designed for carrying Dorothy to the Land of Oz. The orchestration of the piece is deliciously 1970s in its style, complete with an electrical sound and driving rhythm, capitalizing on the funk, pop and Motown styles of the period.

“Hot Honey Rag”
By John Kander
When Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly finally join forces to become a pair of killer-dillers in vaudeville, they delight the audience with their dance routine, set to “The Hot Honey Rag”. The piece, by composer John Kander, explodes with vitality and pep, with a Charleston flavor that is indicative of the show’s 1920s setting.

“The March of the Siamese Children”
By Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers was a talented composer who adeptly wrote potent instrumental pieces for his musicals. Like the aforementioned “Carousel Waltz”, his “March of the Siamese Children” from The King and I is just as affecting and grand. Written to accompany a sequence where the King of Siam introduces his myriad children to their new schoolteacher, the piece runs the gamut of emotions, from shyly tentative to regally majestic, capturing each child uniquely as they are introduced to Mrs. Anna.

“The Night Waltz”
By Stephen Sondheim

Rapturously evocative and catchy, “The Night Waltz” from A Little Night Music is the perfect way to demonstrate love triangles in a musical about the trials of romance. Set in Scandinavia, the musical often refers to the perpetually long days, of this need for the sun to set for love to begin and conflict to resolve. Stephen Sondheim creates a lilting melody that is also drivingly passionate.

“Alaura's Theme”
By Cy Coleman

Cy Coleman captures the sound of Old Hollywood, Silver Screen themes a la of Max Steiner with his melodramatic “Alaura’s Theme” in City of Angels. Since the musical is about the making of a film noir gumshoe movie mystery, Coleman’s pastiche perfectly captures the flavor of time and place. Alaura Kingsley is a wealthy and beautiful woman, worthy of her own orchestral arrangement igniting whenever she enters a room. 

“Slaughter on 10th Avenue “
By Richard Rodgers

When the choreographer of a musical is George Balanchine, you are going to need some specially crafted music to help cover the dance that such a talent will provide. That is exactly what Richard Rodgers did for the musical On Your Toes, which featured Balanchine’s “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” ballet. The piece was danced by funny man Ray Bolger, who played a dancer who is set to be assassinated by two gangsters.

“The Sword Dance”
By Frederick Loewe

One of the highlights of the musical Brigadoon is the wedding of Jean MacLaren and Charlie Dalrymple, complete with Frederick Loewe’s atmospheric “The Sword Dance”. Choreographed in the original production by the clever and groundbreaking Agnes de Mille, the piece is full of original melody that tips its hat at traditional Scottish music.

“The Waiter's Gallop”
By Jerry Herman

In the current Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, we are happy to have the title character back where she belongs. Even more exciting, the new cast recording includes “The Waiter’s Gallop”, the frantic musical number composed by Jerry Herman to demonstrate how the waiters of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant scramble with delight to prepare for their return of their favorite patron.

“The Embassy Waltz”
By Frederick Loewe
Frederick Loewe seemed to inherit his homeland’s legacy of great Austrian composers who could craft a lush and lilting waltz. He did, after all, compose “The Embassy Waltz” for My Fair Lady, a sumptuous concoction, the perfect mixture of music and instrumentation for introducing the newly transformed Eliza Doolittle to the nobility. As the flower girl-turned-duchess enters the room, a regal waltz plays, ushering her into her new life. 

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